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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Cristian Orfescu > NanoArt Pioneers - Interview with Jack Mason

Cris Orfescu

For my own work, which I call Nanotechno, the definition I've gravitated toward is "envisioning the invisible", says Mason. This is the first article in a series of interviews with NanoArt pioneers.

January 7th, 2008

NanoArt Pioneers - Interview with Jack Mason

Cris: How would you define NanoArt?

Jack: For my own work, which I call Nanotechno, the definition I've gravitated toward is "envisioning the invisible." The realm of atoms and molecules is so tiny that it really is invisible in the optical or photographic sense. But if I had to more broadly defined the intersection of art and nanotechnology I would say that it might be described as any creative way of making this scientific frontier more accessible and relevant to people.

"Dirty Water" by Jack Mason

Cris: Is NanoArt a viable form of art?

Jack: As a genre or subject matter, art about or inspired by nanotechnology will likely depend on nanotechnology fulfilling its promise as the "mother of all sciences" and producing the kinds of deep, dramatic breakthroughs in energy, medicine and materials that have been touted. So the future of this tiny little pocket of artistic interest is far from uncertain. It will also depend on the skill and imagination of artists to break through the clutter of a world exploding with new creative forms, ideas and trends.

Cris: What is the difference between NanoArt and Photography?

Jack: By definition, any way of imaging things at the nanoscale is inherently not photographic...things at the scale of atoms and molecules are smaller than the wavelength of light, so they are too small to be seen via traditional optical means, even with the most powerful magnification. In fact, the tools that scientists used to measure or sense nanoscale features are more indirect ways of "seeing," just as Braille uses touch or sonar uses sound. In this sense the source materials for nanoart are inherently digital, the results of measuring things like the atomic force of atoms and molecules, or their magnetic fields.

"Metacule" by Jack Mason

Cris: When did you start working with nanoimages?

Jack: As a journalist, covering the commercialization and development of nanotechnology for publications such as Small Times, MIT Technology Review, The Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report and others from 2000-2004, I found the scientific images of nanoscale objects, devices and structures strangely mesmerizing. Here were some of the most literally elemental bits of matter being studied and imaged in totally new ways. I had an inkling that there was some artistic possibility in these kinds of images. I had been involved in many kinds of creative efforts throughout my career, including theater, filmmaking, animation, design and music, but I had never really considered myself a visual artist of any kind. I tried to interest friends and colleagues with better skills and training to collaborate with me on a nanotech art effort (and would still like to work with other artists) but in failing to find the right partners, I decided to see if I could try to create the kind of images I had in mind. Gradually, I began to develop my skills in manipulating images and a sort of methodology and aesthetic style emerged.

Cris: Are you looking for something specifically when you work with a nanoimage?

Jack: I tend to look for some tension between patterns--much of the molecular world can be highly ordered and structured-- and more freeform or unstructured elements. This latter aspect reflects another important characteristic of the nanoscale realm: the role of quantum properties, which only exist at this small length scale. Quantum effects include the kind of uncertainty, unpredictability, fluctuation and magic of atomic physics.

"See Trees" by Jack Mason

Cris: Would you please describe your artistic process?

Jack: Because I want to create something new and original, I typically combine multiple images, and manipulate them significantly before and after blending them. Just as nanotech scientists are looking to synthesize material and devices with novel properties, I want to create images that are suggestive of nanotechnology and invite discussion or thinking about nanotechnology. So I strive to push the source materials well beyond their literal origins as scientific images and hope to create a kind of molecular impressionism.

Cris: How do you choose the colors for your artworks?

Jack: I call my style nanotechno, and have tended to use very bright, almost technicolor hues, in part because many scientific images tend to use high contrast, almost gaudy images to enhance the ability to see the differences in structures or measured data. Of course, I also strive to use colors that also reinforce whatever emotional or atmospheric qualities seem to want to come out in a given image.

"Spin Cycle" by Jack Mason

Cris: There is any message behind your work?

Jack: I've included a little riff on my on this front. "My hope is that this work will feed cultural awareness of this tantalizing new science, and is a personal expression of wonder and mystery about the infinitesimally small world that humans are seeking to master. It is an attempt to build a visual vocabulary for a landscape of staggering smallness, and an invitation to investigate new vistas of the fabric of matter never before possible." I think another theme or idea in my work is the way in which I hope that art and science can fuel imaginations in different, complementary ways. I certainly hope that art might be a way to interest young people in the creative aspect of scientific careers.

Cris: What is the NanoArt future?

Jack: In my current work at IBM--on a range of innovation topics including collaborative innovation, virtual worlds, the opportunities and challenges in globalization and other fronts-- I see an explosion of new ideas and models for how the future will unfold. My guess is that nanotechnology flavored or inspired visual art will flourish to the degree to which it can cross-fertilize--with other media, other artists, and other major streams of change. For example, I'm currently experimenting by combining my nanotechno images with my other keen interest in 3D technologies and models. I also think that the ability to visualize both the structure and behavior of things built at the nanoscale will be essential tools for future generations of nanotechnologists, so I can imagine how new immersive environments might help scientists and engineers not just "see" the nanoscale world up close, but enable them to project their imaginations better by being able to feel that they are inside or immersed in the molecular structures or devices they may be designing.

"Chorus" by Jack Mason

To view more of Mason's artworks please visit

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